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CHAPTER XXIV


BOB IS CLEARED


"Betty, you stay out of this," commanded Bob sternly. "If there's going to be a scene, two actors will be a-plenty. You go away and take the girls with you."

The clerk who had been regarding them curiously over his ledger now took a hand.

"If this argument is likely to be prolonged," he suggested sarcastically, "I'd advise you either to go up to your room, Mr. Peabody, or into that card room there. That's deserted in the day time."

"Yes, come on in here," said Betty, anxious to get away from the gaze of the other guests. She led the way into the card room which opened off the lobby and was preferable to making a public journey in the elevator. "Close the door, Louise."

Mr. Peabody kept his hold on Bob's collar and from time to time he shook him vigorously, whether with the idea of shaking the stubbornness out of him or merely to indicate that he held the whip hand, Betty was undecided.

"You can let go of Bob," she said heatedly, as soon as they were in the room with the door shut. "He isn't going to run away."

"I'll see that he doesn't," was the grim reply. "You hand over that deed, young man, or I'll call a policeman in two minutes."

"I tell you I haven't got it!" protested Bob desperately. "I never saw the thing. What would I be doing with a paper of yours? I haven't got it, and that's all there is to it."

"Of course he hasn't!" For the life of her Betty could not keep still, though perhaps caution dictated that she hold her tongue. "I know he hasn't that deed, Mr. Peabody. And having him arrested won't give you what he hasn't got."

"How do you know he hasn't got it?" demanded the farmer. "Deeds don't walk off and hide themselves, young lady. Bob happens to know why I want that deed. And if he doesn't produce it, and that mighty quick, he'll find himself where they can shake the truth out of him with no fooling."

Bobby sprang to her feet from the leather chair where she had curled up to listen to the proceedings.

"I'll telephone my father," she cried. "He'll help Bob to sue you for false arrest. If you have some one arrested and it is found he didn't do what you said he did, he can sue you for damages. I've heard my father say so. Don't you care, Bob, Daddy will find a way to beat this horrid old man."

An unpleasant smile spread over the mean, shriveled face.

"Is that so?" queried Joseph Peabody. "Well, I don't know who you are, Miss, but you need a lesson on how to keep a civil tongue in your head. All the fine friends Mister Bob has picked up in Washington won't stand by him long when they find out he's a poorhouse rat and a runaway at that. There'll be some explaining for you to do before the almshouse authorities are satisfied, young man."

Betty's anger flamed as the familiar odious phrase fell from the farmer's lips, and added to her anger was the crystallized fear that had been haunting her for weeks. She did not know whether Bob could really be returned to the poorhouse or whether it was another trick of Peabody's, but she feared the worst and dreaded it.

"You try to return Bob to the poorhouse!" she cried, her cheeks blazing, her hands clenched. She took a step toward Peabody and he fell back, dragging Bob with him so that a chair stood between them and the furious girl. "You try to return Bob to the poorhouse, and I'll tell every one what I know about that deed," flared Betty. "I know all about the Warren lots and the kind of sale you forced through. You—you—" to her distress and amazement, Betty burst into tears.

"Don't cry, dear," whispered Bobby, putting her arm around her. "Daddy won't let them do anything to Bob. You see if he does."

Joseph Peabody was apparently impervious to verbal assaults and tears.

"Once more I ask you," he shook Bob violently, "are you going to hand over that paper? Yes, or no?"

"I tell you I haven't got it," said Bob doggedly. "Shaking my teeth out won't help me get a paper I never saw in my life. As for having me arrested, you keep up this racket much longer and the hotel authorities will send for the police on their own responsibility."

Peabody picked up his hat.

"All right, you come along with me," he said sourly. "You won't go before a soft-headed police recorder this time, either. You'll find out what it means to face a real judge."

He was marching Bob toward the door when a sharp rap sounded. Louise, nearest the door, had the presence of mind to open it. A bellboy stood there with a telegram on a tray.

"Telegram for Mr. Joseph Peabody," he announced impassively, his alert eyes darting about the room from which such angry voices had been coming for the last quarter of an hour.

"All right—give it here." The farmer snatched the yellow envelope and shut the door in the boy's face without making a motion to tip him.

His back against the door, to prevent Bob's escape, Joseph Peabody slit the envelope and read the message. The others saw his jaw drop and a slow, painful flush creep over his face and neck.

"I'm called back to Bramble Farm right away," he mumbled, refusing to meet their gaze. "Being hurried, and having so much to tend to, I'm willing to drop the matter of having you arrested, Bob. But let this be a lesson to you, to hoe a straight row."

Bob stared at the man stupidly, frankly bewildered. But Betty's quick wit solved the sudden change of front. She had seen how quickly Peabody folded up the telegram when he had read it.

"Isn't that a message from Mrs. Peabody?" she demanded crisply. "And doesn't she say she's found the deed? Where was it—in one of your coat pockets?"

The farmer was taken by surprise, and the truth was shocked out of him.

"She's found it under the seat in the old market wagon," he blurted. "I recollect I put it there for safe-keeping, meaning to take it over to the deposit box the next day. Well, I've wasted more time an' money in Washington than I like to think of. Got to go home and make up for it."

Without another word or glance, without the shadow of an apology to Bob, he swung out of the room and strode over to the desk. In a moment they heard his harsh voice demanding the amount of his bill.

Bob looked at Betty, who stared back. Louise and Bobby were equally silent. Then Betty snickered, and the tension was broken. Peal after peal of laughter rang out, and they dropped helplessly into chairs and laughed till they could laugh no longer.

"Oh, dear!" Betty sat up, wiping her eyes. "Did you ever see anything like that? He never said good-by, or admitted that he'd made a mistake, or—or anything! What do you suppose people in the hotel must think of him?"

That reminded Bobby of the girl they had come to see and who was really responsible for their visit to the hotel.

"The first kind thing Ruth Royal ever did for me," she declared frankly. "I wouldn't have missed seeing Mr. Peabody for worlds."

"How did you ever happen to come here, Bob?" asked Betty, who had been wondering about this ever since she had seen Bob walk right into the one man he most wished to avoid.

"I brought a letter from Mr. Derby for one of the guests stopping here," explained Bob. "That reminds me, I haven't delivered it yet. Peabody threw me off the track. I'll turn it in, and then I'll have to hurry back to the office; they'll think I've been run over for sure."

He went off, promising again to see them on Saturday, and the girls, feeling too upset to settle down to the quietness of a motion picture house, went out to walk up and down in the sunshine of Pennsylvania Avenue until it was time to meet Mr. Littell and Libbie and Esther.

Of course they had much to tell them, and Mr. Littell in particular was a most appreciative listener. He was genuinely fond of Bob and interested in him, and he got quite purple with wrath when he learned of the indignity he had suffered at the hands of the ill-bred farmer.

"Then he went off and never had the grace to ask the lad's pardon!" sputtered the builder when Betty reached the end of her recital. "I wish I had him by the collar—just for three minutes. Perhaps I wouldn't drive a little of the fear of justice into his narrow mind!"

They had lingered over their ice-cream, and although Carter drove at a good speed, they found that unless they hurried they would be late for dinner. It was one of Mrs. Littell's few unbreakable rules that the girls must change into simple, light frocks for the evening meal, and they went directly upstairs to take off their street clothes.

When they came down dinner had been announced and they went directly to the table. They had so much to tell Mrs. Littell and she was so interested that it was not until they were leaving the table that she remembered what she had meant to ask Betty as soon as the girl came in.

"Betty, darling," she said comfortably, "you found your letter on the hall table all right, didn't you?"

"Why, I never thought to look for mail," returned Betty in surprise. "No, Mrs. Littell, I didn't stop in the hall. Was there a letter for me?"

Mrs. Littell nodded and swept her family across the hall into the living-room, saying something to her husband in a low voice. Betty hurried to the console table where the mail was always laid on a beaten silver tray. The solitary letter lying there was addressed to her. And the postmark, she saw as she picked it up, was a town in Oklahoma!